Tuesday, September 13, 2005
This argument (or something like it) might be deployed by a defender of the cottage industry that has grown up in cultural studies around the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a response to the worry that Buffy-centered scholarship is somehow illegitimate since there doesn't seem to be any sense in which the Buffy scholarship of today can be said to improve on (or get worse than) previous Buffy scholarship.
The argument fails because it tries to show too much. Granting, as we should, that there's no discourse independent notion of progress, it doesn't follow that the notion of progress is empty. In fact, a given discourse may (and possibly must) have standards which regulate how one is to negotiate the problems that can be articulated in that discourse.
This is all that is needed for a notion of progress, but it does leave the question of whether a discourse dependent notion of progress can provide us with important goals. The answer, it seems to me, is that this will depend on whether the problems articulated in the discourse are worth solving. Since our choice of discourses will often be guided by our perception that the discourse sheds light on salient problems, it seems clear that making discourse dependent progress can sometimes provide us with important goals.
But, as I said, it was the wrong argument. The defender of Buffy-centered scholarship seems to be left with two alternatives. She can either continue to dispute the notion that the legitimacy of a piece of scholarship depends upon the work's contribution to the solution of a definable and important problem, or she can give an account of the problem that such work addresses.
There is a straighforward way in which Buffy scholarship can be said to be directed at a problem. That is, we can say that Buffy is a text, and that Buffy scholarship succeeds insofar as at opens that text to interpretation. The difficulty with this answer is that the notion of progress appealled to fails to ground interest in the project. What's missing is an appreciation of what opening the text accomplishes.
That's not to say that opening the text fails to accomplish anything. Rather, the point is that what it accomplishes need not have anything at all to do with what other openings of the text accomplished. And this means that insofar as there is a common problem which Buffy scholarship shares that problem is just the uninteresting one of making the text more open.
And yet, particular pieces of Buffy scholarship are not uninteresting, nor do they fail to accomplish anything. It's just that their interest does not derive from the common problem they share with other tokens of Buffy scholarship and that their accomplishment cannot be understood in terms of progress toward the solution of any such problem.
This brings me to the right argument. The idea that scholarship ought to solve problems and make progress is built on the assumption that the standards for success in any discourse must be cashed out in terms of definable problems which are amenable to solution. But while there are some domains in which we do well to judge by such standards, there are other domains in which such standards are unhelpful. Nor does the unhelpfulness of such standards mean that the domain fails to be a proper subject of scholarly interest. Hence, the very idea that 'making progress' must be the primary goal of all scholarly endeavor is a non-starter.